Coral Von Zumwalt

The West Coast may lag an hour to three behind the rest of the country, but Los Angeles has always been way out ahead when it comes to the nation’s tastes. Here are 26 reasons why.

April 13, 2010

America is finally catching up to what Angelenos have known—and happily devoured—for years. Many of today’s food trends took root in L.A.: the devotion to local, seasonal ingredients, readily available from year-round farmers’ markets. The eschewing of stiff Continental formality. (Your waiter is as likely to crouch beside your table and ask “you guys” what’s up.) The elevation of pop comfort foods—burgers, doughnuts, tacos, pizza—to creative new forms. Not least, the long-standing, citywide affection for traditional dishes from abroad (Salvadoran pupusas, Peruvian ceviche, Vietnamese pho), the sort of cooking the rest of us are wont to call “ethnic.” With its countless immigrant subcultures—most still serving the authentic foods of their homelands—L.A. is both the least obviously and the most definitively American city. It’s also, right now, the finest place in the nation to eat.

A: Animal

The city’s top new restaurant may not, at first, seem very L.A.: plain, boxy interior; “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on the stereo; and a menu of the pig-happy, nose-to-tail Dude Food you’d expect in Brooklyn or Chicago. But it’s the ethereal produce, not the protein, that raises Animal (dinner for two $100) to such dizzying heights. A plate of crackly pig’s ears—punctuated by chile-garlic paste and a gooey fried egg—comes on like an amp set to 11, but is brightened and lightened by a splash of tart lime juice and fresh scallions. Crunchy nuggets of fried hominy go up with wasabi peas and popcorn in the holy trinity of salty snacks. The unexpected gem is the crudo: a recent combo of raw fluke, yuzu, serrano chile, apple, and pungent mint was no macho plate but downright girly—silky, sexy, and impeccably dressed.

B: Breakfast

This is an early-to-rise town, aptly fond of the morning meal—and while it’s hard to beat the ricotta pancakes at BLD or an egg scramble at the Nickel Diner, the 15-month-old bakery/café Huckleberry (breakfast for two $30) takes the prize for L.A.’s best breakfast. Join the perpetual line snaking through the small dining room to the bakery counter and order a plump, crisp-edged doughnut dipped in Valrhona chocolate, or the platonic ideal of egg sandwiches, with Niman Ranch bacon, cave-aged Gruyère, arugula, and tangy aioli on buttered country bread. The rest of your day will thank you.

C: Church & State

At the forefront of Downtown’s dining renaissance is the cacophonous, freewheeling bistro Church & State (dinner for two $90), in the unlikely neighborhood of Skid Row, where chef Walter Manzke—whose star shone too briefly at Bastide a few years back—conjures ur-French classics: lard-cooked frites, house-made charcuterie, and a shockingly good tarte flambé with caramelized onions, smoked bacon, and molten Gruyère.

D: Delis

Like vintage Buicks and aging divas, old delicatessens preserve themselves well in the southern California sunshine. Canter’s, Nate ’n Al, Greenblatt’s: all unimpeachable specimens. But the sine qua non will always be 63-year-old Langer’s (pastrami sandwich $13), source of the finest pastrami this side of the Hudson. The meat—smoky around the edges, Kobe-tender, and bursting with beefy juice—requires not a smidge of seasoning, though mustard comes standard. And the rye...Good Lord, the rye: par-baked daily at Bea’s Bakery, in Tarzana, then finished in-house till it’s plush in the center but crisp at the crust. Finally there’s the setting: brass chandeliers on a dropped-panel ceiling; a malt machine; a case of cakes the size of truck wheels. Dare you? Yes. Yes, you do.

E: Espresso

Obsessively crafted espresso drinks—brewed in $10,000 Clover machines, bonglike siphons, or a brass-sheathed La Marzocco elegant as an old French horn—are the main perk at Lamill (breakfast for two $45). But the note-perfect coffee is equalled by the food, courtesy of Providence chef Michael Cimarusti. Don’t miss the eggs en cocotte, a burbling ramekin of velvety yolk and gently baked whites swirled around crimini and oyster mushrooms, lardons, and fines herbes.

F: Farmers’ Markets

Musky Charentais melons, candy-like persimmons, juicy citrus at any time of year, a dozen varieties of artichoke and avocado: just a few reasons why southern California is the envy of any sentient human cursed to live elsewhere. No place is better for working up an appetite—or sating one—than the Santa Monica Farmers Market (Wednesday and Saturday mornings, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.), which sells all of the above and more.

G: Gjelina

Speaking of the farmers’ market, that’s where you’ll typically find Travis Lett when he’s not behind the stoves at Gjelina (dinner for two $85), the bright new light on ever-trendy Abbot Kinney. Lett’s surfer-boy looks—perhaps you caught him in Vogue—belie his talent for the earthy, assertive, locavore cooking that makes even vegetarian dishes (wood-roasted Tahitian squash with rosemary and unfiltered olive oil; braised chickpeas with harissa) taste as hearty as the short ribs. Lett’s intensely flavorful, flame-kissed plates find an ideal setting in the dark, candlelit dining room or back courtyard.

H: Hamburgers

Look, we’re happy to see brash new upstarts stake their claim: 25 Degrees, in Hollywood; the Counter, in Santa Monica; Umami Burger, on LaBrea Avenue. But honestly—we could sample L.A.’s myriad haute-burger offerings until the grass-fed cows come home and never find two better than the Double-Double at In-N-Out (multiple locations; in-n-out.com; $2.99) or the Office Burger at Father’s Office ($12.50). These are the polestars of California burgerdom: the former a well-balanced assemblage of fresh trimmings and never-frozen beef that evokes all the scarf-worthy pleasures of fast food, while utterly transcending the genre; the latter a fancily dressed interloper made with ground dry-aged chuck, topped with a smoky bacon and caramelized-onion compote, Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, and arugula, served on a disarmingly crunchy demi-baguette—less a burger than an exceedingly rich steak sandwich. Pair it with sweet-potato fries and a glass of AleSmith Anvil ESB, one of 35-odd craft brews on tap.

I: Izakaya

Along with Donkey Kong, instant noodles, and SMS serial fiction, one of Japan’s finer inventions is the izakaya: a folksy, rowdy pub specializing in small plates evoking ofukuro no aji (the taste of mother’s cooking)—that is, if your mom made you grilled yellowtail collar, braised pork belly, or flanlike tofu topped with crunchy scallions, baby shrimp, and wispy threads of ginger. You’ll wish she had at Izayoi (snacks from $3), a convivial Little Tokyo tavern where the shochu, sake, and cold beer flow freely well into the night.

J: Jonathan Gold

The high/low priest of Southland dining. The first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Lester Bangs of food writing. Jonathan Gold, stalwart reviewer for LA Weekly, makes the hungriest of us look meek and unadventurous, not to mention ineloquent. His reviews collection, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles (LA Weekly Books), reads like a book of short stories populated by a rogue’s gallery of vivid global characters. In the end, it’s Gold’s city; we’re just the dinner guests.

K: Khua Kling

The mind-bendingly spicy cuisine of southern Thailand is at the heart of the epic 130-plus-item menu at Jitlada (lunch for two $25), a cozy Thai Town canteen whose fiery khua kling (a turmeric-charged dry curry with beef or diced pork) will cause you to see through time. Relief comes in a cooling order of khao yam, a fragrant salad of rice, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, green beans, and sour mango.

L: Lotería

The original Lotería stand is a landmark at the Third Street Farmers’ Market; the newer Lotería Grill (lunch for two $24) serves the same note-perfect tacos in a sit-down setting. You’ll want a brace of the cochinita pibil (marinated pork, slow-roasted in a banana leaf ) and, if available, two of the phenomenal lengua de res (tender stewed beef tongue in tomatillo sauce), chased with a michelada or a bottle of Mexican Coke (made with real cane sugar, not corn syrup).

M: Mixology

For all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles, the city’s cocktail scene is fast-improving. Restaurants like Rivera and Comme Ça have raised the bar with inventive (but never frivolous) drink menus. Alongside them has emerged a new breed of serious cocktail dens, the sort that craft their own bitters and chip their own ice. Kick or cap off your night at the rum-crazed Tar Pit, noir speakeasy The Varnish, or Copa D’Oro, where head barman/savant Vincenzo Marianella creates custom-blended drinks—you choose the base ingredients—using fresh fruits and herbs from the nearby farmers’ market.

N: Nancy Silverton

You knew the L.A.-born-and-bred Nancy Silverton could work magic with flour and an oven (she introduced artisanal sourdough to the city at La Brea Bakery and was head pastry chef at Spago before that). And you knew she had a way with melted cheese (who else could have made Campanile’s Grilled Cheese Nights the hottest ticket in town?). So when Silverton teamed up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to create—heaven help us all—a pizza parlor, you kind of knew it would be great. But not this great. Silverton’s astonishingly flavorful pies are worth every second of the two-hour wait at Pizzeria Mozza (dinner for two from $75)—whether it’s the squash blossom–tomato-burrata combo or the masterpiece of gooey Stracchino, shaved artichokes, olives, and lemon.

O: Omakase

L.A.’s most artful sushi chefs tend to toil in the least-artful-looking sushi bars, usually tucked inside anonymous strip malls—to the point that sushi snobs are rightly suspicious of anyplace fancier than a Pinkberry. The two best and least assuming: Kiriko (omakase dinner for two $160), in the Little Osaka enclave off Sawtelle Boulevard, and Sushi Zo (lunch for two $120), in sleepy Cheviot Hills. Kiriko isn’t even listed in Zagat, but chef-owner Ken Namba is a master of all things salmon: he gently smokes his Vancouver Island wild king salmon over applewood and then pairs it with the collar, seared to a gorgeous, glistening gold. At Sushi Zo, an omakase lunch might start with yuzu- and spicy radish–dressed Kumamoto oysters, then proceed through sea urchin and squid “noodles” (the squid formed into perfectly al dente capellini) and slices of translucent, ruby-red Hawaiian tuna that glisten like tropical fruit.

P: Persian Food

The city nicknamed Tehrangeles is home to the largest Iranian community outside Iran. Emigrés have settled all over L.A.’s west side—a significant percentage of the students at Beverly Hills High are of Persian descent—but it’s in the cafés and kebab houses of Westwood Boulevard that the diaspora regroups. Elegant ladies and men in Bijan bond over piping-hot lavash bread and savory gheymeh bademjan (eggplant stew) at Shamshiri Grill (dinner for two $44), while the younger set noshes on baguettes piled with salad olivieh (a Persian childhood favorite of diced chicken, potato, egg, and pickles) at nearby Canary (sandwiches for two $16). On Fridays, cockle-warming abgoost is the daily special at Attari ($10.50): a bowl of hearty lamb, tomato, and bean soup accompanied by sprigs of tarragon and mint, raw onions and radish, warm barbari bread, and a tongue-tingling sour torshi (minced pickle). Sprinkle in some Farsi gossip and a melancholy ballad by Googoosh (the Persian Streisand) and any homesick exile would swear she was back in Esfahan.

Q: Quesillo

Tangy-sweet quesillo (soft, unripened cow’s-milk cheese) is the key to a mouthwatering pupusa: a disk of griddled corn flatbread filled with grated cheese and your choice of green chiles, shredded pork, refried beans, squash, or artichoke-like loroco flower. Native to El Salvador—which celebrates National Pupusa Day on the second Sunday of November—but beloved throughout Central America, pupusas can be found all over L.A., though none better than at Atlacatl (pupusa $2.10). Still not sated? Come to MacArthur Park June 19 for the annual Pupusa Festival.

R: Rivera

John Rivera Sedlar, the Santa Fe–born chef who pioneered Southwestern cuisine two decades ago, makes his long-awaited return to the kitchen at Rivera (dinner for two $85), a three-point toss from the Staples Center. The sleekly designed space—shades of 90’s dot-com boom—is a bit too faithful to Sedlar’s heyday, but the cooking is reassuringly earthy: the juicy puerco pibil (sous vide–cooked pork shoulder) is so meltingly tender you could cut it with a sheaf of lettuce, while the house-made tortillas—still warm from the griddle—have sage leaves, fresh chervil, dill, tarragon, and edible flowers pressed into their centers.

S: Salad

This is not about a sensible substitution for fries. This is not alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast. This is about the genre-defining Green Goddess salad at Tavern (lunch for two $40), Suzanne Goin’s breezy new restaurant-café-food shop in Brentwood, which is precisely the sort of place where unadventurous diners order salads as a main course. They don’t deserve one this good: a platter of sweet Dungeness crab, poached shrimp, avocado, and bright-green leaves of market-fresh Little Gem—a crisper, nuttier butter lettuce—with a dressing redolent of tarragon, anchovy, and chive. The virtuous never had it so good.

T: Tapas

The Bazaar (dinner for two $100)—a $12 million collaboration at the SLS Hotel between the madcap Spanish chef José Andrés, designer Philippe Starck, and hotelier Sam Nazarian—is a restaurant in the way that Avatar is a movie: every element is engineered to dazzle and disorient, for better or for worse, starting with the wacky, 12,500-square-foot interior (which combines a patisserie, a bar, two dining rooms, a Moss design shop, and an itinerant palm reader). Then there’s the menu itself—half devoted to traditional tapas, the other to metaphysical riffs on same. Sure, some of it reads like molecular gastronomy’s greatest hits: the foie gras cotton candy, the dainty ice cream cones of caviar, the requisite spherified olives (which taste like salty tears). Yet only the jaded could deny the joy here. Behold the seared arctic char, delivered under a silver dome, which the server lifts to unleash a swirl of applewood-scented “smoke.” Or the conserva—canned daily in sardine tins, in the Spanish manner—of king crab with pungent tarragon, edible flowers, and a bracingly tart raspberry vinaigrette.

U: Uni

Even parochial Japanese uni lovers acknowledge Santa Barbara sea urchin as the world’s finest: a glistening jewel of briny-nutty-sweetness. At The Hungry Cat (sea urchin $18) the uni arrives fresh each morning and is served in the spiny shell, seasoned with absolutely nothing, to be scooped up and savored by some lucky soul with a spoon. Too bad about the dining room, wedged behind a Borders bookstore and possessing neither charm nor a view—but you’ll be too focused on the silken glory of the uni to notice.

V: Vietnamese

Hardcore Vietnamese-food devotees will send you to the corner of Orange County known as Little Saigon—but how about a pho fix here in L.A.? Seek out Pho Café (lunch for two $35), hidden beside a Crown Escrow outlet in a derelict mini-mall. Despite the lack of signage, the long, narrow room is jammed from noon to night with Silver Lake and Echo Park hipsters, each of them nursing an outsize bowl of Vietnam’s beloved, breathtakingly fragrant noodle soup. Best option: the pho tai gan, with toothsome beef tendon and ribbons of raw sirloin that slowly cook in the clove- and cinnamon-spiced broth.

W: Wolfgang

Has any chef been so equally revered and derided? Twenty-eight years on from the original Spago, Wolfgang Puck earns all the flak for overexposure—the supermarket pizzas, the airport and casino cash-ins. But the first celebrity chef can still bring the heat. His latest, Cut (dinner for two $180), is the best steak house in town on a good night, when the dry-aged rib eye is seared just-so, Richard Meier’s dining room gleams like a camel-colored Lexus, and Tom Cruise doesn’t cut you in line at the hostess stand. (Hey, it happened to us.)

X: X Marks the Spot

Whether food trucks are the new bacon or just another passing thing, no trend has inspired such exuberant devotion among L.A. food bloggers, for whom the fad is tailor-made (vendors’ locations are continuously updated via Twitter). Kogi put the food truck on the national Google map with its Korean/Filipino–inflected taco: a deeply weird conflation of corn, sesame, cabbage, and sweet-spicy pork that manages to evoke a Oaxacan mole, an Alsatian choucroute, a McDonald’s salad, and a packet of Fun Dip—in a wholly good way. Now hungry flash mobs are targeting other roving kitchens: Nom Nom (nomnomtruck.com) serves sublime banh mi and Vietnamese tacos, while Coolhaus (eatcoolhaus.com) builds ice cream sandwiches to order in architect-inspired flavors like Louis Kahntaloupe.

Y: Yuca’s

When you’re craving Mexican on the East Side and Lotería Grill seems too far to drive, that’s when you pull up to Yuca’s (carne asada tacos $2, three for $6), still the best taqueria in Los Feliz after 34 years, and order a brace of juicy, smoky, citrus-tinged carne asada tacos to devour on the hood of your car: Los Angeles on a paper plate.

Z: Zarate

The confoundingly underrated Ricardo Zarate—a Lima, Peru, native and former sushi chef—works wonders with Peruvian ceviche at Mo-Chica (lunch for two $40), in the Mercado La Paloma food court and craft market south of Downtown. Zarate’s ceviche del día—sea bass, yellowtail, scallop, whatever’s fresh— is marinated to order in the classic leche de tigre (lime juice spiked with ginger and yellow chiles, so refreshing you could drink a highball of the stuff) and gussied up with cubed yam, choclo corn, and/or sliced red onion. (The cheesy pan-flute soundtrack comes courtesy of the adjacent stall.) That this minor miracle chose such a humble spot to reveal itself speaks volumes about Los Angeles, a city built not on flash and hype but on countless unsung revelations.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

Yuca's

Located in Los Feliz, Yuca’s is a no-frills, family-owned taco stand that has been serving up authentic Mexican food to residents of Los Angeles for over forty years. What it lacks in style, it more than makes up for in flavor and a decidedly casual atmosphere. How casual? Yuca’s staff actually serve food (and write down customer orders) on paper plates. Cochinita pibil, a traditional dish of marinated, slow-cooked pork from the Yucatán Peninsula, is one of the most frequently requested items. Since seating is somewhat limited, many patrons order their food to go or simply eat in their cars.

Shamshiri Grill

In the area known as Little Persia or the Iranian restaurant row, Shamshiri Grill serves Mediterranean fare in a spacious dining room with black tables, orange floors, and red walls decorated by the works of local painters. Chefs stand beneath a huge sunburst in the glass-enclosed kitchen to cook the signature 24-ounce chicken, lamb, and beef kabobs over a flaming grill. Persian recipes fuse unique flavors like saffron, orange peels, and pistachios into savory gheymeh bademjan (eggplant stew), while meat rotates on the shawarma machine to create the perfect crispy exterior and juicy interior. Hot lavash bread arrives fresh from the stone oven to dining tables inside or on the patio outdoors.

Lamill Coffee Boutique

In funky Silver Lake, this coffee shop offers a five-page menu of java drinks—all prepared in your choice of brewing device, from a siphon (which resembles a very elaborate bong) to a one-of-a-kind La Marzocco espresso machine sheathed in hand-pounded brass. But the note-perfect coffee is equalled by the food, courtesy of Providence chef Michael Cimarusti. Don’t miss the eggs en cocotte, a burbling ramekin of velvety yolk and gently baked whites swirled around crimini and oyster mushrooms, lardons, and fines herbes.

Comme Ça

This casual French brasserie from chef David Myers resides amidst a sea of upscale clothing shops in West Hollywood. The dining space has cushioned banquette seating and hallways lined with food-centric blackboard art. Hearty comfort food includes crispy skate Grenobloise, braised lamb shank with Moroccan couscous, and coq au vin. Myers and chef Kuniko Yagi augment the menu with plats du jour (daily specials) like Wednesday’s duck breast and Saturday’s pork chop. The bar helped to launch L.A.’s interest in craft cocktails, and fresh juices and house-made syrups still contribute to drinks like Ross Collins, a “tall & refreshing” rye cocktail, or modern classics like the Penicillin.

Pizzeria Mozza

When Nancy Silverton teamed up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to create—heaven help us all—a pizza parlor, you kind of knew it would be great. But not this great. Since 2006, this dream team has been dishing up spectacular Neopolitan-style pies with puffy, charred crusts to throngs of fanatics.  Silverton’s astonishingly flavorful pies are worth every second of the two-hour wait—whether it’s the squash blossom–tomato-burrata combo or the masterpiece of gooey Stracchino, shaved artichokes, olives, and lemon. While the semi-traditional toppings are excellent (house-made fennel sausage with sweet red onions), try the more outré toppings (sweet Gorgonzola, radicchio, and fingerling potatoes).

Cut

Wolfgang Puck opened CUT in 2006 inside the Beverly Wilshire hotel. The menu focuses on dry-aged beef; cuts range from filet mignon to porterhouse to ribeyes that are wood and charcoal grilled, then finished in a broiler. Steaks can be paired with toppings such as wasabi-yuzu kosho butter, black truffles, and bone marrow.

Architect Richard Meier, who designed the Getty Center, crafted the bright, white-walled space, which includes tiered seating, a glass-front kitchen, and floor-to-ceiling windows. 

Hungry Cat, L.A.

This seafood-focused restaurant resides in a courtyard of the Sunset & Vine mixed-use development complex. This original location helped propel chef David Lentz to outposts in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica. The dining room has curved white walls and dark-wood accents; seating is also available on the patio, where there is a pair of stainless steel bars, one serves cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juices, and the other specializes in raw seafood. A blackboard lists the day’s specials, which might include Florida stone crab claws or Rhode Island clams. Popular dishes include steamed mussels with lamb bacon and curry, and pancetta-wrapped sturgeon with grits and mustard aioli.

Father's Office

Order the Office Burger, a fancily dressed interloper made with ground dry-aged chuck, topped with a smoky bacon and caramelized-onion compote, Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, and arugula, served on a disarmingly crunchy demi-baguette—less a burger than an exceedingly rich steak sandwich. Pair it with sweet-potato fries and a glass of AleSmith Anvil ESB, one of 35-odd craft brews on tap.

Copa D’Oro

Just around the corner from the Third Street Promenade, this cocktail lounge caters to a more mature crowd than its neighboring sports bars and pubs. It’s furnished with brown-leather sofas, antique mirrors, and a custom-designed wooden bar, where Italian-born mixologist Vincenzo Marianella crafts more than 40 specialty drinks. Incorporating fresh produce and herbs, the drink list includes unusual options like the Kentucky Kid, with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Hum botanical liqueur, blackberries, mint, ginger beer, and lemon juice. The bar also serves cheese boards, homemade dips, and grilled panini.

The Bazaar by José Andrés

The restaurant—a $12 million collaboration at the SLS Hotel between the madcap Spanish chef José Andrés, designer Philippe Starck, and hotelier Sam Nazarian—is a restaurant in the way that Avatar is a movie: every element is engineered to dazzle and disorient, for better or for worse, starting with the wacky, 12,500-square-foot interior (which combines a patisserie, a bar, two dining rooms, a Moss design shop, and an itinerant palm reader). Then there’s the menu itself—half devoted to traditional tapas, the other to metaphysical riffs on same. Sure, some of it reads like molecular gastronomy’s greatest hits: the foie gras cotton candy, the dainty ice cream cones of caviar, the requisite spherified olives (which taste like salty tears). Yet only the jaded could deny the joy here. Behold the seared arctic char, delivered under a silver dome, which the server lifts to unleash a swirl of applewood-scented “smoke.” Or the conserva—canned daily in sardine tins, in the Spanish manner—of king crab with pungent tarragon, edible flowers, and a bracingly tart raspberry vinaigrette.

Animal

The city’s top new restaurant may not, at first, seem very L.A.: plain, boxy interior; “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on the stereo; and a menu of the pig-happy, nose-to-tail Dude Food you’d expect in Brooklyn or Chicago. But it’s the ethereal produce, not the protein, that raises the restaurant  to such dizzying heights. A plate of crackly pig’s ears—punctuated by chile-garlic paste and a gooey fried egg—comes on like an amp set to 11, but is brightened and lightened by a splash of tart lime juice and fresh scallions. Crunchy nuggets of fried hominy go up with wasabi peas and popcorn in the holy trinity of salty snacks. The unexpected gem is the crudo: a recent combo of raw fluke, yuzu, serrano chile, apple, and pungent mint was no macho plate but downright girly—silky, sexy, and impeccably dressed.

The Varnish

Hidden inside Cole's French dip restaurant, this cocktail den has a Prohibition-era feel, with dimly glowing wall sconces, flocked wallpaper, and an upright piano for live jazz sessions. The handcrafted vintage drinks, like the Monte Carlo, harken back to the early 20th century and set the standard for mixology in L.A.

Gjelina

You'll typically find chef Travis Lett at the farmer's market when he's not behind the stoves at his restaurant, the bright new light on ever-trendy Abbot Kinney. His surfer-boy looks—perhaps you caught him in Vogue—belie his talent for the earthy, assertive, locavore cooking that makes even vegetarian dishes (wood-roasted Tahitian squash with rosemary and unfiltered olive oil; braised chickpeas with harissa) taste as hearty as the short ribs. Lett’s intensely flavorful, flame-kissed plates find an ideal setting in the dark, candlelit dining room.

Kogi Taco

A well-known food vendor, the roving Kogi food trucks serve Korean and Mexican fusion cuisine. The brainchild of Korean-American chef Roy Choi, Kogi sells such items as tacos filled with everything from tofu to Korean barbecued short ribs, kimichi quesadillas, and the Pacman Burger made with three meats. There's even chocolate tres leches cake and for dessert. The taqueria-on-wheels have multiple trucks roaming the streets of both Los Angeles and Orange Counties; exact locations are broadcast daily via the Web and Twitter (@kogibbq). 

Huckleberry

After training at San Francisco’s renowned Tartine Bakery, pastry chef Zoe Nathan teamed up with husband Josh Loeb to open this popular café, known for its use of local, organic ingredients. The dining room is open and airy, with a high ceiling, wooden tables topped with miniature flower vases, and glass display cases filled with Nathan’s homemade treats, which range from salted caramel bars to maple-bacon biscuits. Breakfast favorites include the “green eggs and ham” (La Quercia prosciutto, pesto, and arugula on an English muffin), while the lunch menu lists specialties like the barbecued pork sandwich with spicy house-made pickles.

Church & State

Serving a contemporary take on French bistro cuisine, this eatery loccated inside a New-York-style loft space in east downtown. Church and State occupies a loading dock within the 1925 Nabisco building, and the interior design elements include dark wood, hanging string lights, and the building’s original brick walls and floor. Chef Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide, plates up decadent French favorites including lard-cooked frites, sautéed diver scallops, and a tarte flambé stuffed with Gruyere and smoked bacon. The wine list has plenty of French options, while the cocktail selection has options like ginger julep, made with Plymouth gin, bols genever, mint, ginger, and lemon.

Langer’s

Like vintage Buicks and aging divas, old delicatessens preserve themselves well in the southern California sunshine. Canter’s, Nate ’n Al, Greenblatt’s: all unimpeachable specimens. But the sine qua non will always be 1947-founded Langer’s, source of the finest pastrami this side of the Hudson. The meat—smoky around the edges, Kobe-tender, and bursting with beefy juice—requires not a smidge of seasoning, though mustard comes standard. And the rye...Good Lord, the rye: par-baked daily at Bea’s Bakery, in Tarzana, then finished in-house till it’s plush in the center but crisp at the crust. Finally there’s the setting: brass chandeliers on a dropped-panel ceiling; a malt machine; a case of cakes the size of truck wheels. Dare you? Yes. Yes, you do.

Santa Monica Farmers' Market

The Spread: The biggest and oldest of Santa Monica's weekly markets (there are three others) is this Wednesday gathering downtown. Most of L.A.'s top chefs—including Mark Peel from Campanile and Suzanne Goin from A.O.C and Lucques—shop here for ingredients like Ranier cherries, snap- and snow peas, and deep-red Vulcan lettuces; nectarines, avocados, and Romano wax beans; and organically grown herbs and specialty bottled oils.

Most Unusual Find: Smoked tomatoes and peppers—which look like sun-dried but have a rich, almost meaty flavor—from Windrose Farms, in Paso Robles.

Izayoi

A convivial Little Tokyo tavern where the shochu, sake, and cold beer flow freely well into the night.

Jitlada

Upscale eats in a downscale neighborhood, Jitlada serves the finest in southern Thai cuisine in a cozy and colorful Thai Town joint on Sunset. Despite its less-upscale neighbors (a strip club and a 99-cent store across the way), the restaurant serves high quality food. The overwhelming large menu has 130 items, including 40 home-style southern Thai specialties. Besides traditional Thai options like saté, tom kha soup, and pad Thai, dishes like spicy fried soft-shell crab and giant grilled flame prawns are available.

Lotería Grill

The original Lotería stand is a landmark at the Third Street Farmers’ Market; this newer location serves the same note-perfect tacos in a sit-down setting. You’ll want a brace of the cochinita pibil (marinated pork, slow-roasted in a banana leaf ) and, if available, two of the phenomenal lengua de res (tender stewed beef tongue in tomatillo sauce), chased with a michelada or a bottle of Mexican Coke (made with real cane sugar, not corn syrup).

Tar Pit

Designer cocktails and Art Deco decor distinguish this sumptuous throwback to a 1930s supper club. The latest venture of Campanile chef Mark Peel, the Tar Pit is located in West Hollywood near the corner of N. La Brea and Melrose Aves. The interior has mirrored booths and a long, dramatic bar, where mixologist Audrey Saunders crafts classic cocktails with flavorful twists like American trilogy, made with rye, applejack, and orange bitters. Chef Peel’s small plates are a step up from typical bar fare (Mediterranean tapas alongside upscale comfort foods) with dishes like wild boar meatballs and steak and kidney pie.

Kiriko

Tokyo native Ken Namba has owned this sushi-oriented restaurant on the edge of Sawtelle Boulevard’s Olympic Collection since the late ‘90s, before the neighborhood earned its unofficial "Little Osaka" moniker. The space is centered around a long wood bar, behind which Namba and his cooks prepare sashimi and sushi to order, pulling from the refrigerated display case, including Japanese mackerel, salmon—both smoked and raw—sea urchin, and fatty bluefin belly. Prepared dishes include fried gobo root and sea snails tossed with sake, sugar, and mirin (similar to rice wine). For dessert, house-made ice cream comes in flavors like honey vanilla and black sesame.

Sushi Zo

Despite its strip mall locale, this West LA sushi joint is known for fresh seafood and upscale prices. There isn't a menu at this restaurant, and it doesn't serve typical sushi fare like California rolls or teriyaki chicken. Instead, chef Keizo Seki serves omakase style, meticulously crafting raw fish morsels of his choosing at a sometimes glacial pace (diners know to expect a lengthy experience). While sushi varies from night to night, chef Seki prepares both tradtional options like tuna, and yellowtail, as well as salmon eggs, monkfish liver, and sea urchin. 

Canary

Funky Middle Eastern décor and all-you-can-eat Iranian fare distinguish this eatery in the heart of Westwood. Located in Rancho Park, Canary serves up exotic treats for the like donbalan (lightly breaded lamb testicles) and lamb tongue sandwiches. Less adventurous eaters can order more classic Persian dishes, including koobideh, spicy chicken kabob wraps, and traditional dizi, lamb shoulder meat simmered with herbs. The restaurant also offers many vegetarian options like ghormeh sabzi stew, and the $7.99 all-you-can-eat buffet is a popular lunch choice.

Attari

On Fridays, cockle-warming abgoost is the daily special: a bowl of hearty lamb, tomato, and bean soup accompanied by sprigs of tarragon and mint, raw onions and radish, warm barbari bread, and a tongue-tingling sour torshi (minced pickle). Sprinkle in some Farsi gossip and a melancholy ballad by Googoosh (the Persian Streisand) and any homesick exile would swear she was back in Esfahan.

Atlacatl

Tangy-sweet quesillo (soft, unripened cow’s-milk cheese) is the key to a mouthwatering pupusa: a disk of griddled corn flatbread filled with grated cheese and your choice of green chiles, shredded pork, refried beans, squash, or artichoke-like loroco flower. Native to El Salvador—which celebrates National Pupusa Day on the second Sunday of November—but beloved throughout Central America, pupusas can be found all over L.A., though none better than at Atlacatl.

Rivera

John Rivera Sedlar, the Santa Fe–born chef who pioneered Southwestern cuisine two decades ago, makes his long-awaited return to the kitchen at Rivera. The sleekly designed space—shades of 90’s dot-com boom—is a bit too faithful to Sedlar’s heyday, but the cooking is reassuringly earthy: the juicy puerco pibil (sous vide–cooked pork shoulder) is so meltingly tender you could cut it with a sheaf of lettuce, while the house-made tortillas—still warm from the griddle—have sage leaves, fresh chervil, dill, tarragon, and edible flowers pressed into their centers.

Tavern

Suzanne Goin’s breezy 2010-opened restaurant-café-food shop in Brentwood is precisely the sort of place where unadventurous diners order salads as a main course. They don’t deserve one this good: a platter of sweet Dungeness crab, poached shrimp, avocado, and bright-green leaves of market-fresh Little Gem—a crisper, nuttier butter lettuce—with a dressing redolent of tarragon, anchovy, and chive. The virtuous never had it so good.

Pho Café

The restaurant is hidden beside a Crown Escrow outlet in a derelict mini-mall. Despite the lack of signage, the long, narrow room is jammed from noon to night with Silver Lake and Echo Park hipsters, each of them nursing an outsize bowl of Vietnam’s beloved, breathtakingly fragrant noodle soup. Best option: the pho tai gan, with toothsome beef tendon and ribbons of raw sirloin that slowly cook in the clove- and cinnamon-spiced broth.

Mo-Chica

The confoundingly underrated Ricardo Zarate—a Lima, Peru, native and former sushi chef—works wonders with Peruvian ceviche at this hidden spot in the Mercado La Paloma food court and craft market south of Downtown. Zarate’s ceviche del día—sea bass, yellowtail, scallop, whatever’s fresh— is marinated to order in the classic leche de tigre (lime juice spiked with ginger and yellow chiles, so refreshing you could drink a highball of the stuff) and gussied up with cubed yam, choclo corn, and/or sliced red onion. (The cheesy pan-flute soundtrack comes courtesy of the adjacent stall.) That this minor miracle chose such a humble spot to reveal itself speaks volumes about Los Angeles, a city built not on flash and hype but on countless unsung revelations.

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